Top critical review
19 people found this helpful
Why American Politics Works
on August 4, 2001
E.J. Dionne, Jr. gives us an informative journalistic account of modern American politics, and I learned many facts from this book. I have reservations about his thesis, however. If I understand it, Mr. Dionne argues that Americans are presented with false (rather extreme) choices by leaders of the two main political parties. This polarized and polarizing rhetoric turns people off. Most people are at the political center, and accept some premises from one party and its ideology and other premises from the rival party and its ideology.
This is my problem. I do not think that Americans who are turned off by politics are turned off because of this perceived extremism. They are either bored by politics, or consider it a waste of time to try to understand it in depth. In fact, this perceived "extremism" is part of the sensational theater of politics without which Americans would pay even less attention to it. Let us face it: politics is both theater and business. Politician have to compete for attention with America's mind-boggling entertainment industry and American people's own challenges and travails. How does it do that? From time to time, both parties exaggerate and sensationalize their differences. Truth be told, the differences between the two main parties are almost nonexistent, as they always are in two party systems. And a two party system naturally results from a single-member district, simple plurality electoral system, i.e., first past the post system. Many people do not know that rhetorical differences between most Republicans and most Democrats are minor, because they lack a comparative perspective. In many countries of Europe, the rhetorical debate is quite ideologically wide-ranging. Moreover, when it comes to practical/policy differences between Democrats and Republicans, such differnces pail to insignificance.
In short, elites play up rhetorical differences to make politics more, not less, interesting for most people. A cold empirical analysis shows that real policy differences of the two parties are marginal. This, by the way, is what in large part accounts for our political stability and public policy continuity. The genius of the system lies in its ability to adjust to the times without major political upheavals. And this is made possible by political elites whose verbal battles belie real and continuous cooperation.